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Traditional Midsummer's Eve
“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”
~ William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1590-1597)
Foolish mortals, take heed this evening and consider a protective charm of marsh marigolds, an offering of bread and salt, or keep a lucky charm of iron metal close to you, especially if you have fairies at the bottom of your garden! The Eve of St John, the traditional date of Midsummer's Eve, has historically been considered one of the special liminal times of the calendar year, a night during which humans are more susceptible to the machinations of spirits and fairies! A recurring motif in many Celtic tales and legends is the need to ward off the fairies who were thought to haunt specific locations and/or lead travelers astray using will-o'-the-wisps. While occasionally helpful, traditional fairy folklore more often describes their delight in tormenting humans, with antics ranging from child-like mischief (souring milk, knocking down fences, pulling hair) to darker and more malevolent deeds (kidnapping, cursing, or worse)! Fairies were also often blamed for sickness in animals and people, and the motif of the changeling child (a fairy child left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies) may have been a folk explanation for sickly infants. The best known tale surrounding midsummer fairy mischief is Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the fairies, including King Oberon, Queen Titania, and Puck the prankster, use their magic to assist in reuniting and resolving a conflict amongst four Athenian lovers! 🧚🎭
Midsummer, also known as St. John's Day, is centered upon the summer solstice, and in Northern European celebrations usually takes place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures. The Christian Church designated June 24th as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St. John the Baptist, and the observance of St. John's Day begins the evening before, known as St. John's Eve.
The celebration of Midsummer's Eve included bonfires to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southward again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other powerful beings.
Midsummer festivals are celebrated throughout Scotland, notably in the Scottish Borders. The Eve of St. John has special magical significance and was used by Sir Walter Scott as the title and theme, for a pseudo-ballad poem. He invented a legend in which the lady of Smailholm Tower, near Kelso, keeps vigil by the midnight fires three nights in a row and is visited by her lover; but when her husband returns from battle, she learns he slew that lover on the first night, and she has been entertained by a very physical ghost.
The most well known tale surrounding midsummer is Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a comedy written between 1590 and 1597, portraying the adventures of four young Athenian lovers and a group of six amateur actors who are controlled and manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the forest in which most of the play is set. Shakespeare made his fairies, including King Oberon, Queen Titania, Puck the prankster and the lesser fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, more benevolent than the traditional folklore of the time dictated.
Historical origins include various traditions of Celtics (Bretons, Welsh people), Gaelics (Irish, Scots), Germanic peoples, and of Middle French medieval romances. Fairie was used adjectivally, meaning "enchanted" (as in fairie knight, fairie queene), but also became a generic term for various "enchanted" creatures during the Late Middle Englishperiod. Literature of the Elizabethan era conflated elves with the fairies of Romance culture, rendering these terms somewhat interchangeable. The Victorian era and Edwardian era saw a heightened increase of interest in fairies, who by this time, had become slightly less sinister beings.
A recurring motif of legends about fairies is the need to ward off fairies using protective charms. Common examples of such charms include church bells, wearing clothing inside out, four-leaf clover, and food. Fairies were also sometimes thought to haunt specific locations, and to lead travelers astray using will-o'-the-wisps. Before the advent of modern medicine, fairies were often blamed for sickness, often interpretation interpreted in the story of the changeling (a fairy child that had been left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies).
Shakespeare's story has been the subject for countless painters, especially the Victorian Fairy painters.
This magical tartan by Carol A.L. Martin was inspired by a warm moonlit summer's night.
For a beautiful video gallery of Howard David Johnson's modern fairy art, click his mixed media portrait titled "Fae Lament."