Thursday, June 21, 2007
Midsummer and St. John's Wort
Midsummer traditionally represented the marriage of the God and Goddess, the ultimate triumph of light over darkness, of Summer over Winter. In ancient Northern cultures, it was a particularly joyful celebration, marking the longest day and shortest night. In contemporary society, it is of less consequence, as artificial light superimposes itself over natural rhythms everywhere.
As a festival that honoured the Sun, it essentially was a fire festival, and huge bonfires were created. Young men and/or maidens, even couples hand in hand, leapt over these bonfires traditionally for good fortune and fertility. The higher one could leap, the higher the crops would grow.
Once Christianity superceded the old Pagan religions of Northern Europe, festivals in honour of St. John the Baptist took the place of traditional Midsummer celebrations. St. John's Day is 24 June; thus St. John's Eve is 23 June. St. John's Eve is a very magical time in folklore. It was believed that certain herbs or ferns had the power to make the invisible visible on St. John's Eve.
St. John's Wort is one of these herbs. It has achieved some notoriety recently for its use in contemporary 'alternative medicine' as a cure for anxiety and depression. My own introduction to St. John's Wort occurred when I was about seven years old and read my first book by E. Nesbit.
E. Nesbit remains one of my favourite writers. She had the ability to bring magic into the ordinary world. Boys and girls living mundane lives somehow would wander into magical situations in her tales, and it never required much to make the transition. It might be a strange coin, an old rug or a book entitled 'The Language of Flowers'. Suddenly, these ordinary children would be propelled into wonderful adventures, going back in history or coming face to face with historical figures in 'modern' times, meeting prehistoric creatures, Greek godlings or even Julius Caesar.
Here is a scene about Midsummer magic from a story included in E. Nesbit's book, 'The Magical World'. The hero is a young boy who runs away from school.
'I shall have to sleep behind a hedge,' he said bravely enough; but there did not seem to be any hedges. And then, quite suddenly, he came upon it.
A scattered building, half transparent as it seemed, showing black against the last faint pink and primrose of the sunset. He stopped, took a few steps off the road on short, crisp turf that rose in a gentle slope. And at the end of a dozen paces he knew it. Stonehenge! Stonehenge he had always wanted so desperately to see. Well, he saw it now, more or less.
He stopped to think. He knew that Stonehenge stands all alone on Salisbury Plain. He was very tired. His mother had told him about a girl in a book who slept all night on the altar stone at Stonehenge. So it was a thing that people did - to sleep there. He was not afraid, as you or I might have been - of that lonely desolate ruin of a temple of long ago. He was used to the forest, and, compared with the forest, any building is homelike.
There was just enough light left amid the stones of the wonderful broken circle to guide him to its centre. As he went his hand brushed a plant; he caught at it, and a little group of flowers came away in his hand.
'St. John's wort,' he said, 'that's the magic flower.' And he remembered that it is only magic when you pluck it on Midsummer Eve.
'And this is Midsummer Eve,' he told himself, and put it in his buttonhole.
'I don't know where the altar stone is,' he said, 'but that looks a cosy little crack between those two big stones.'
He crept into it, and lay down on a flat stone that stretched between and under two fallen pillars.
The night was soft and warm; it was Midsummer Eve.
'Mother isn't going till the twenty-sixth,' he told himself. 'I sha'n't bother about hotels. I shall send her a telegram in the morning, and get a carriage at the nearest stables and go straight back to her. No, she won't be angry when she hears all about it. I'll ask her to let me go to sea instead of to school. It's much more manly. Much more manly . . . much much more, much.'
He was asleep. And the wild west wind that swept across the plain spared the little corner where he lay asleep, curled up in his sacking with the inside - out school cap, doubled twice, for pillow.
He fell asleep on the smooth, solid, steady stone.
'He awoke on the stone in a world that rocked as sea-boats rock on a choppy sea.
He went to sleep between fallen moveless pillars of a ruin older than any world that history knows.
He awoke in the shade of a purple awning through which strong sunlight filtered, and purple curtains that flapped and strained in the wind; and there was a smell, a sweet familiar smell, of tarred ropes and the sea.
'I say,' said Quentin to himself, 'here's a rum go.'
He had learned that expression in a school in Salisbury, a long time ago as it seemed. The stone on which he lay dipped and rose to a rhythm which he knew well enough. He had felt it when he and his mother went in a little boat from Keyhaven to Alum Bay in the Isle of Wight. There was no doubt in his mind. He was on a ship. But how, but why? Who could have carried him all that way without waking him? Was it magic? Accidental magic? The St. John's wort perhaps? And the stone - it was not the same. It was new, clean cut, and, where the wind displaced a corner of the curtain, dazzlingly white in the sunlight.
There was the pat pat of bare feet on the deck, a dull sort of shuffling as though people were arranging themselves. And then people outside the awning began to sing. It was a strange song, not at all like any music you or I have ever heard. It had no tune, no more tune than a drum has, or a trumpet, but it had a sort of wild rough glorious exciting splendour about it, and gave you the sort of intense all-alive feeling that drums and trumpets give.
Quentin lifted a corner of the purple curtain and looked out.
Instantly the song stopped, drowned in the deepest silence Quentin had ever imagined. It was only broken by the flip-flapping of the sheets against the masts of the ship. For it was a ship, Quentin saw that as the bulwark dipped to show him an unending waste of sea, broken by bigger waves than he had ever dreamed of. He saw also a crowd of men, dressed in white and blue and purple and gold. Their right arms were raised towards the sun, half of whose face showed across the sea -but they seemed to be, as my old nurse used to say, 'struck so,' for their eyes were not fixed on the sun, but on Quentin. And not in anger, he noticed curiously, but with surprise and . . . could it be that they were afraid of him?
Quentin was shivering with the surprise and newness of it all. He had read about magic, but he had not wholly believed in it, and yet, now, if this was not magic, what was it? You go to sleep on an old stone in a ruin. You wake on the same stone, quite new, on a ship. Magic, magic, if ever there was magic in this wonderful, mysterious world!
The silence became awkward. Some one had to say something.
'Good-morning,' said Quentin, feeling that he ought perhaps to be the one.
Instantly every one in sight fell on his face on the deck.
Only one, a tall man with a black beard and a blue mantle, stood up and looked Quentin in the eyes.
'Who are you?' he said. 'Answer, I adjure you by the Sacred Tau!' Now this was very odd, and Quentin could never understand it, but when this man spoke Quentin understood him perfectly, and yet at the same time he knew that the man was speaking a foreign language. So that his thought was not, 'Hullo, you speak English!' but 'Hullo, I can understand your language.'
'I am Quentin De Ward,' he said.
'A name from other stars! How came you here?' asked the blue-mantled man.
'I don't know,' said Quentin.
'He does not know. He did not sail with us. It is by magic that he is here,' said Blue Mantle. 'Rise, all, and greet the Chosen of the Gods.'
They rose from the deck, and Quentin saw that they were all bearded men, with bright, earnest eyes, dressed in strange dress of something like jersey and tunic and heavy golden ornaments.
'Hail! Chosen of the Gods,' cried Blue Mantle, who seemed to be the leader.
'Hail, Chosen of the Gods!' echoed the rest.
'Thank you very much, I'm sure,' said Quentin...
(end of excerpt)
Stories like these brought magic into my bedroom when I was younger than Quentin. I developed an early interest in herbs and flowers and considered 'The Language of Flowers' my gospel, notwithstanding the fact that few of the spells and folk beliefs included in that little book ever worked for me. I always felt that I must not have said the words quite right, or not had the right plant. It was not the magic that was at fault ever; it was my inexact application of it.
The yellow flowers of St. John's Wort often are made into garlands for religious icons. According to the laws of sympathetic magic, yellow flowers are imbued with the power of the Sun. St. John's Wort always has been credited with protective, healing powers. It was believed to bloom on 24 June, which is how it acquired the association with St. John the Baptist, whose Saint's Day is 24 June.
Apart from its magical properties, St. John's Wort, also known as Johanniskraut has been used with some success to treat anxiety and depression.
Even in contemporary Europe, St. John's Eve is celebrated with bonfires. In Bavaria, huge bonfires are made in the mountains. Where formerly those who made the fires were shepherds using dry wood and kindling, now fires are lit from a mixture of wood shavings and oil in empty food tins. Wood and kindling are collected for weeks before Midsummer. In the cliffs of Waxenstein, Zugspitze and other places, huge crosses often are erected at Midsummer to commemorate mountain climbers who have fallen to their deaths. The Midsummer is celebrated with food, drink and dancing.
With every step a greater mystery surrounded me...The kingdoms that have no walls, and are built up of shadows, began to oppress me as the night hardened. Had I had companions, still we would only have spoken in a whisper, and in that dungeon of trees even my own self would not raise its voice within me.
In 'The Path to Rome', Hilaire Belloc wrote: 'It was full night when I had reached a vague clearing in the woods, right up on the height of that flat hill. This clearing was called 'The Fountain of Magdalen.' I was so far relieved by the broader sky of the open field that I could wait and rest a little, and there, at last, separate from men, I thought of a thousand things. The air was full of midsummer, and its mixture of exaltation and fear cut me off from ordinary living. I now understood why our religion has made sacred this season of the year; why we have, a little later, the night of St. John, the fires in the villages, and the old perception of fairies dancing in the rings of the summer grass. A general communion of all things conspires at this crisis of summer against us reasoning men that should live in the daylight, and something fantastic possesses those of us who are foolish enough to watch upon such nights.'
As far as the triumph of Light over Darkness and Warmth over Cold are concerned, one often doesn't feel like celebrating that much in the middle of June in climates distinguished by their heat and humidity in summer. Whether global warming is a fact or simply a possibility, pollution and over-population together have conspired to make our Summers less inviting than they otherwise might be.
Even so, the idea of a bonfire never loses its appeal. They may be illegal in most urban environments, but one can light a candle or two, or even make a small ritual fire in an iron cauldron in honour of the Lord and Lady of Light.