Midsummer already, the longest day of the year on 21st June when daylight lasts well into the late evening and the air is languorous with hazy heat and the sweet smells of honeysuckle and rose . The image most Britons have in their minds on this day is that of the festivities at Stonehenge when the dawn lights the stone and the Druids perform their ancient rituals.A truly magical sight that we associate with the Druids but that predates them many centuries being centred in the Neolithic love of megastructures variously aligned with astral happenings, that include Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in the Orkneys.
Midsummer eve is a night of magic one of the two spirit nights, ysbrysdnos of Welsh tradition that include Halloween and Midsummer eve, these are the nights when supernatural powers are afoot and we can make contact with our ancestors. Midsummer is celebrated in many cultures; in northern Europe the ceremonies are characterised by rituals that imitate the behaviour of the sun such as the lighting of bonfires , the rolling of fiery wheels downhill or dancing in circles. Fiery wheels are rolled down hills to mirror the heat of the sun at its peak and then descending and fading into the gloom of winter to come , often the ceremonies include the dowsing of the flames in a river or lake at the bottom of the hill . We hold hands and dance in circles to celebrate the joy of the sun’s life-giving rays and to reflect the circle of its motion and the circle of life that it promotes.
Magic is in the air on midsummer eve as perfectly captured by Shakespeare in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, here the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania play tricks on each other, lead poor Bottom the weaver very willingly astray and totally mix up the love lives of four young Athenians . All is magic, mystery, lust and illusion a perfect midsummer night. Fairies and midsummer go hand in hand , they also dance in circles on ancient hillsides and are a faint trace of the ancient pagan gods and goddesses of streams and mountains. Over almost all the Indo-European area we can find belief in super-natural beings who dwell in the wild natural places such as streams, trees and mountains and who can be tricky or benevolent depending on how we humans treat them. The Indian beings are Apsaras, they love to sing, dance and play and are very beautiful but be careful because they confuse us poor humans, we become bewildered in their presence , befuddled wits are a common occurrence when encountering fairy folk of all kinds. Away with the fairies in fact, which explains my behaviour quite often!
The ancient Greeks had sea-nymphs or Nereids , nymphs of the trees Dryads, and nymphs of springs and streams or Naiads , they were mainly friendly and bountiful with their gifts but could sometimes carry off children, spell-bind a handsome youth that took their fancy or befuddle the minds of passing humans . These nymph ladies were often the mothers of heroes such as Achilles and can make an appearance in the heroic legends where they often lead a willing hero astray for a while, as in the case of Odysseus and Calypso.
Entrapment is a peculiarly fairy-like pastime , Titania entraps Bottom for a night of passion, Odysseus lingers with Calypso for years while poor Penelope waits grieving at home and in the medieval ballad Tam Lin the hero is spell-bound for seven years by the Queen of the fairies until he manages to escape by passing his shapeshifting tests. On the surface these tales seem cruel and selfish on the part of the fairy folk but usually the entrapped gains something from their ordeal , often in the form of knowledge or courage, healing of the spirit or just pure wonder as is the case for Bottom.
the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste , his tongue to conceive , nor his heart to report , what my dream was.
As with Bottom’s metamorphosis into an Ass , fairy magic quite often takes a shape-shifting form, this together with the power of flight and the ability to become invisible gives them their glamour . They can cast a net of wonder over us poor humans so that we are unable to see them or pinpoint their location, this fairy power of illusion is known as pishogue in the Irish language and we still use the term spell-bound to describe an event that suspends our ability to function and keeps us transfixed in pure wonderment. Shapeshifting has always featured as part of the tool-kit of sorcerers ,shamans and indeed Greek, Celtic and Roman gods; it features in the sagas of Odin , the exploits of Zeus and of course the tales of Merlin and king Arthur.
For Shamanistic societies , shape shifting created new types of beings that could exert new types of power and go where humans themselves could not. The wolf, the wild boar , the eagle could all use powers inaccessible to the ordinary human and hence were able to transcend the boundaries of human life and enter the spirit worlds . In their guise, mankind could also cross physical boundaries and enter the spirit worlds in order to communicate with the ancestors and to gain knowledge. We can catch a glimpse of this animistic shamanism in the art of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.Here strange animal shapes mix and merge, fusing into each other in intricate patterns and circles. Although this animal metamorphosis was condemned as demonic by the medieval Christian church it has ironically been for ever preserved in the wonderful Celtic -Anglo- Saxon artistic fusions of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The ancient Celtic and Germanic cultures were conscious of presences other than themselves who inhabited the otherworld and the wild places of the lands and seas, these have passed into popular folklore as fairy-folk. The fairies have kings and queens of which Gwyn ap Nudd of the Welsh tradition is maybe the oldest incarnation, he was immortal and lord of Annwfn the underworld , he went abroad with a pack of white hounds with red ears at his side. The Irish call their fairy folk the sidhe (pronounced shee) , they often dwell in the ancient tumuli such as Newgrange and are associated with the Tuatha De Danann the glorious people who were Erin’s last occupants before the Milesian ancestors of the present Gaels took over the land. The sidhe also like to live in or near certain trees such as ancient lonely hawthorns, these fairy trees are still venerated in Ireland and people are loth to harm or cut them fearing bad luck even going so far as to re route roads rather than damage them, as happened in 1999 with the main road from Limerick to Galway .
The fairy traditions of the Celtic and Germanic peoples are tantalisingly present in the stories of our most famous hero, Arthur. Here we have enchantresses and sorcerors of the black arts a-plenty who often posses unearthly beauty and the ability to enthrall or spell-bind the bravest of knights. Most notorious is the fairy half-sister of Arthur, his tormentor and nemesis Morgana Le Fay, the epitome of an evil fairy. She was not always so very bad however, literature has rather blackened her name over time; she first appeared in the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, as a healer without a hint of evil in her ways. She enters the story as the leader of the nine holy women who dwelt in Avalon and who came to tend to Arthur after his defeat and mortal-wounding at the terrible battle of Camlann that brought his kingdom to an end. It was a century later at the hands of the Cistercian Monks in their Prose Lancelot , also called the Vulgate Cycle, that her reputation was turned irretrievably bad.The Cistercians considered it blasphemous to attribute healing powers to a woman who was not a member of a religious order and they set out to make Morgana’s character look much blacker by throwing demonic possession, adultery and even incest into the storyline. It is thus as we know and love her today as she provides the blueprint for many fairy villains from Hans Christian Andersen’s snow queen through to Narnia’s white witch
and Disney’s Sea hag. As we have seen though Morgana’s dark side is not totally the work of the Cistercians, she also draws upon the ancient pagan queens and goddesses who throughout the pre-Christian world were attributed with supernatural powers and who have left their faint echoes in our fairy-folk stories.
There is a further link between Morgana, fairy-folk and midsummer night magic. The Romans celebrated the cult of Fortuna on midsummers day , she was the goddess of fortune and fate , the personification of luck in the Roman pantheon. As such she could bring good or bad luck to humans depending on the devotions of the humans and her own capricious nature, much like the fairies and the nymphs we have already encountered. Her symbol was the wheel of fortune and therefore on midsummer eve we are not just thanking the sun for its bounty but also wishing and hoping for the goddesses of fate and fortune to smile upon us and our harvests. Morgana too is an echo of the ancient goddess of fate that appears in many languages as a Fata Morgana or mirage that lures men to their deaths in the sea or in the desert, she is a nymph like Calypso or Circe or Lorelei that can enthrall or lead astray the unwary and probably lustful men! In classical mythology Night and Darkness have three daughters who are known as the fates, they represent birth life and death, as does traditional European folk lore where the three fates appear on the last day of a persons life and lead them to the next world just as Morgana appears to the dying Arthur with her sister queens and leads him to Avalon.
Be careful then on midsummer’s eve, magic will be afoot, be respectful to the nymphs and fairies, dance but do not mock , be very careful who your fancy alights upon unless you wish to be spellbound for many years ; there will be compensations, they will be very fair and the time will pass quickly and if lady luck is on your side they may shower you with bounty or………………….. beautiful children!!
Good fortune to us all.