Or should it be Merry… hmmm….
Some facts, today is the longest day of the year (meaning the most sunlight)!
The Summer Solstice is also known as: Alban Heflin, Alben Heruin, All-COuples day, Feast of Epona, Feast of St. John the Baptist, Feill-Sheathain, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Misummer, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide and Vestalia.
It's also a day that neo-pagans celebrate with picnics and mead. mmmmm… mead…
And some history!
SUMMER SOLSTICE – JOHANNISNACHT – MIDSUMMER NIGHT!
The Summer solstice was celebrated by the Germanic tribes and their
neighbors, the Slavs and Celts, above all with huge bon fires. Druids
celebrated it as the wedding of Heaven and Earth.
Possibly because the summer solstice was celebrated as the day of victory of
sun and light over darkness and death, the church placed the feast day of
St. John the Baptist onto June 24, directly opposite the feast day of the
birth of Christ on December 24. As Jesus is baptized by St. John and
announced as the Savior, it points to Jesus' role as the one who will
triumph over death.
St. John's, Johannestag on June 24, is the name day of all of those who are
named Hans, Johann, John, Jack, etc.
Wide-spread were customs and rituals, the magic of the shortest night, of
nature and the woods. It was the night of fire festivals and of love magic,
of love oracles and divination. It had to do with lovers and predictions,
when pairs of lovers would jump through the luck-bringing flames, maidens
would find out about their future husband, and spirits and demons were
Healing attributes were ascribed to flowers and herbs, to waters and brooks.
Water customs were attributed to the day and the cleaning and decorating of
wells and fountains persists to this day. A specific fern that blooms, herbs
that are picked at that time are said to have healing power; a dip at
Johannisnacht has special powers, as have foods like baked elder flower
Customs which have to do with health and fertility for fields, domestic
animals as well as humans, persisted over the ages and church and nobility
joined into these customs. They were also celebrated in cities and towns
with parades, pageants, plays and festivals in the market place, the town
green and in the forests.
Some of these celebrations in their various forms can be found to this day
in parts of Europe and even in the United States. At the Midsummer Festival
in Indianapolis, held June 26, 1993 at the monument circle till midnight,
contemporary music and fine foods could be found. There were four music
stages and over 30 restaurants were serving food. Tucked away somewhere was
a picnic in the park for homeless veterans.
Every year on June 23, the eve before the Feast of John the Baptist, in the
mountains of the Werdenfelser Land (Bavaria) mountain fires are burning.
This old custom developed after the Christianization from the Germanic
summer solstice celebrations. In former times the "fire makers" were mostly
shepherds, who burnt dry wood and kindling. Today old and young are on their
way, shortly before dusk, to peaks, ridges and cliffs, to light fires with a
mixture of wood shavings and oil in old food cans. On hills and open spaces
near villages, children and youth will collect weeks before, large wood and
kindling mounds, which will then be lit with the adults. In the cliffs of
Waxenstein, Zugspitze and other places huge crosses will be put up and lit,
to commemorate a fellow mountain climber who fell to death. Many will meet
in a mountain hut or a mountain farm (Alm) for a bite to eat, music and
Gemütlichkeit. (Der Oberbaierische Fest-Täg-und Alte-Bräuch-Kalender 1993,
p. 67) To say that these were merely pagan traditions would be to simplify
the matter, as would be to say that they were just entertainment.
Shakespeare in Midsummer Night's Dream brings these traditions and their
hidden meanings to life. In the "Dream" the collective myth and the personal
dream are so closely interwoven that a literal interpretation of the play
may leave us puzzled.
What happens to the two pairs of lovers when they leave Athens to spend the
night in a forest on the outskirts of the city. If it is to be comedy in the
sense of being "comical," if all that Shakespeare wants to show is that
humans are fools, as he has Puck exclaim, "Lord, what fools these mortals
be!" there would be no need for the symbolic elaboration that goes into the
making of the play.
The adventure in the woods, in the view of eminent psychologist, Carl Gustav
Jung, is an inseparable part of the encounter between the animus element in
those that dwell in the forest, make darkness their home for one night. The
encounter of the lovers, a shared dream, takes place within their own
unconscious. It is only when they leave the woods at sunrise, that they are
reawakened to a new consciousness. In the words of Demetrius, during the
night some "power" helped him recover from "sickness" to "health."
What then is the play all about? Hermia's father is trying to separate her
from her beloved Lysander. We meet Lysander on his way to the house of a
childless widow-aunt, where Hermia and Lysander are to be married. It is
Midsummer night and to reach her house they have to pass a forest. Hermia,
who is following Lysander, is followed by Demetrius, who dotes on her. He in
turn is followed by Helena who loves him deeply. In the forest Puck plays
tricks on the four bewildered lovers. All the ensuing mischief that Puck
does, when he transforms Bottom into an ass, is a result of Oberon's command
who enlisted Puck's help in his power struggle with Titania.
Titania's pursuit of Bottom (changed into an ass), can be understood best in
terms of the wood symbolism that constitutes the metaphorical background to
the confusion. Jung explains:
… the forest dark and impenetrable to the eye, like deep water and
the sea, is the container of the unknown and the mysterious. It is an
appropriate synonym for the unconscious. Trees, like fishes in water,
represent the living contents of the unconscious. … The mighty old oak
represents a central figure among the contents of the unconscious,
possessing personality in the most marked degree. It is the prototype of the
Self, a symbol of the source and the goal of the individuation process. The
oak stands for the still unconscious core of the personality, the plant
symbolism indicating a state of deep unconsciousness. From this it may be
concluded that the hero of the fairytale is profoundly unconscious of
himself. He is one of the 'sleepers,' the 'blind' or 'blind-folded'… (Jung
in Alex Aronson, Psyche and Symbol in Shakespeare, p. 206).
All the psychic energy, that animated the lovers outside the forest, is
either paralyzed or turned into confusion. Puck is merely an instrument of
the unconscious self, "an archetype closely resembling the 'Trickster-
figure' which Jung discovered in American Indian mythology." According to
myth he is "God, man, and animal at once."
Midsummernight, the longest night of the year spells its magic. With warmth
and light and reborn nature, in stark contrast to winter with reign of
darkness and long cold nights, it calls for special celebrations. Darkness
has lost its power, light is triumphant.
Max Kade German-American Center
Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis