Soon it will be June 21, and with it the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. From time immemorial, in the cultures of the Northern Hemisphere, it has been customary to celebrate this moment, symmetrical to the winter solstice on December 21, which became Christmas. On this occasion, ancient pagan Europeans lit bonfires to celebrate light, the Sol Invictus, or unconquered Sun, as the Romans called it. The idea was to prolong the light a little longer, as the ancient peoples knew that daylight would then decline inexorably. For the Celts, this was the beginning of the death of the horned god Cernunnos, who was about to begin his journey into the worlds below. At the same time, however, they began the gestation of the new god who would be born at the next winter solstice. We find this notion again in the symbolism of Cancer, which begins precisely on June 21st and represents this double movement of souls in gestation and souls leaving the earthly plane. When Christianity arrived, it was difficult for the Church to eliminate these age-old beliefs. It decided to place St. John the Baptist there, and not by chance, for he once said of Christ: « I must diminish so that he himself may grow« , a clear symbol of the ancient sun, diminishing while awaiting the one who is to return.
Thus, the ritual practices of ancient paganism persisted in the rural traditions of the Middle Ages. For example, it was customary to jump over the Fire of St. John to purify and bless oneself for the coming year. Likewise, sachets containing written spells of protection were thrown out, concerning what one wished to attract into one’s life or, on the contrary, banish. A log, a firebrand from the blaze, was also brought home to bring happiness and blessings.
Last but not least, this festival was an opportunity to pick certain herbs known as St. John’s herbs, including verbena, yarrow, ivy and, above all, St. John’s wort, the herb that chased away demons. Indeed, modern phytotherapy has discovered that this plant is a natural antidepressant and, in oil form, has soothing properties against sunburn, insect bites and bruises. At the solstice, these herbs were harvested in a spirit of reverence, then passed through the smoke of the fire before being hung in houses, or dried to make remedies and other spells.
So, this year, if you hear of a Midsummer bonfire near you, don’t hesitate to go along in a magical frame of mind, equipped with your little magic sachet or sacred herbs. Even at a safe distance from the fire, you’ll be able to imbue them with the sun’s energy and, above all, help perpetuate a beautiful ancestral tradition. Alternatively, with all due precautions and in compliance with local regulations, you can build your own solstice fire in your garden or, if you live in an apartment, symbolize it with a beautiful red candle.
Witches and sorcerers, take up your wands!