In the folk calendar of Britain, Midsummer's Eve takes place on June 23rd, Midsummer's Day on the 24th. Records of celebrations being held on these days go back at least as far as the 14th century, when a monk of Winchcombe, on the Cotswold edge of Gloucestershire, refers to local folk rolling a flaming wheel down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. A similar rite held on the same day in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales in the 1820s is described as follows:
“People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If this fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”
A similar ceremony is mentioned in the 4th century Acts of Saint Vincent as having taken place amongst pagans in Aquitane in southern France, who rolled their fiery wheel down a hill and into a river, from which they rescued the charred pieces to reassemble them in a temple to their sky god.
Ronald Hutton, in his 'Stations of the Sun' (Oxford University Press, 1996, page 312), says that Midsummer's Day “occupied much the same relationship with the solar cycle as Christmas day; it represented the end of a solstice, the period in which the sun ceased to move for a short period, but rose and set at the same points on the horizon at the extreme end of its range. Now, however, it was at the height of its strength, and light at its longest, and Midsummer Eve represented the culmination of that period of apogee, just before the days began to shorten again as the sun moved southward. In response to the swelling of heat and light, foliage and grasses were now likewise at their fullness, before the time of fruiting approached. No wonder that it seemed a to be a magical time to the ancient Europeans.” He adds that “In the northern half of the continent the festival was generally the most important one of the whole year.”
Why, then, do most modern Pagans celebrate midsummer on the day of the summer solstice and not, as our ancestors did, a few days later on June 23rd-24th?
The answer is not hard to find. The idea of celebrating the summer solstice comes from William Stukeley, who associated Druids with Stonehenge and, in 1720, was the first writer to mention the solstice alignment of the Hele Stone with the centre of the circles there. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Gorsedd of Bards of Britain in 1792, visited Stonehenge and followed Stukeley in believing that Druids celebrated the solstice there. The same alignment was central to a book called 'Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,' published by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1906. This book influenced the Ancient Druid Order, who started holding rituals at the henge a few years after its publication. By the time Gerald Gardner and members of his coven were creating Wicca in the late 1940s, the idea of celebrating the solstices had become firmly fixed in the public imagination, and so the solstices became part of its festival wheel of the year. All of them either ignored, or were unaware of, the ancient and pan-European tradition of celebrating on June 23rd-24th.
Why then, you may ask, is the Stonehenge Hele Stone aligned on the summer solstice sunrise, as is an avenue of stones at Callanish in the Orkneys and some of the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany? First, we may question whether the alignments actually are on the solstice or on Midsummer's Day. After all, it is the defining principle of solstices that the sun's rising position barely alters for about a week. Given the once pan-European custom of celebrating Midsummer's Day, it seems likely that the alignments were intended to be watched in the run-up to midsummer, giving those who understood them time to spread the word that the festival day was approaching. Early agricultural communities were spread out over wide areas and travel was largely on foot. We know that people came to Stonehenge from all over Britain and as far afield as Switzerland. A decent amount of advance warning of festival dates was essential.
Incidentally, it is currently fashionable to say that the major alignment at Stonehenge is not on the summer solstice sunrise, but on the midwinter sunset. While there certainly is a midwinter alignment at Stonehenge, there is also, as Stukeley correctly surmised in the early 18th century, an extremely clear midsummer one. One does not cancel out the other.
You may ask if it matters which day we celebrate midsummer or midwinter on? Personally, I think it does. Having been a Pagan for half a century or so, I've observed a lot. One of the things I've observed is that celebrating solstices often causes problems. An obvious example is the amount of aggression that has often been associated with celebrations of the summer solstice at Stonehenge. In the early 20th century, the then head of the Ancient Druid Order became so incensed at being asked to pay sixpence to get in to the henge that he loudly called down a long, angry curse on its owner. The Ancient Order of Druids, who had been meeting at the henge annually since 1905, vowed never to do so again after drunken local youths climbed all over the stones and heckled them during one of their summer solstice ceremonies in the 1950s. In 1985, policemen and soldiers in police uniforms smashed up vehicles attempting to get to the henge for the solstice, beating unarmed men, women and children in what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield. When I tried to hold a ceremony for world peace at Avebury on the summer solstice of 1996, it was disrupted by angry drunks. By contrast, those I've held on Midsummer's Day have been peaceful, joyous and focused.
A kind of testosterone madness kicks in at the summer solstice which has dissipated by Midsummer's Day, a few days later, when the solar tide has turned. If we are truly attempting to restore, or at least be inspired by, the spirituality of our ancestors, then surely it makes sense to try and follow the ways in which they rode the cosmic tides. This is perhaps especially true of the solstices, the two annual festivals our ancestors regarded as vital, pivotal times of the year, times of magic and divination and of great power.
When Emma Restall Orr and I founded the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge in 1997, we made sure it would celebrate on Midsummer's Day. This works out well, with focused ceremonies attended by no more than a hundred people restoring a sense of peace to the place after the wildness of the solstice celebrations a few days earlier which attract many thousands.
In Cornwall, the old tradition has been maintained, and a string of hilltop fires are kindled each year on Midsummer's Eve, June 23rd, just as the sun is setting. The accompanying ceremony is spoken in Cornish and climaxes with a Lady of the Flowers casting into the roaring flames a garland made up of 'good' herbs, those believed to have medicinal qualities, 'bad' herbs, those that are poisonous, and sprigs of oak, rowan and foxglove.
Rolling flaming wheels down hills would certainly land us in trouble with Health and Safety regulations these days, but there's no reason why more of us shouldn't celebrate midsummer at Midsummer.
A Merry Midsummer to one and all,
Now here's a little treat for you for having read this far. "Oh do not tell the priest of our rites, for he would call it a sin, for we've been out in the woods all night, a'conjuring summer in..."