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Everyday Heathenry: Making Midsummer

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Traditional Midsummer festivities in Fengersfors, Sweden. Photo by Räv Skogsberg

Midsummer in Sweden is a big thing. It’s such a major thing that it was seriously suggested to be made into Sweden’s National Day. There are two major holidays that basically everyone in Sweden celebrates, Christmas and Midsummer, and since Midsummer is less associated with religion, in the minds of most, there are more people open to celebrating it. It has a long history and is mentioned briefly in the Sagas of the Icelanders, in connection with Olav Tryggvason, though with no mention of how it was celebrated. In the 16th and 17th century, though, there are written sources that give us important clues. The now iconic Midsummer Maypole likely came here in the 17th century, but people gathered and danced around fires in town squares and fields long before that. In the mid-1500s Olaus Magnus wrote about it in his ”History of the Nordic People”, and a hundred years later there were attempts to ban the celebrations in some parts of Sweden, because young people have been partying a bit too hard.

A Happy Heathen Midsummer

Midsummer dance, by Anders Zorn

But, we don’t know anything about how Midsummer was celebrated in pre-Christian times, so how can we have a heathen Midsummer blót? Well, for starters modern Midsummer celebrations in Sweden are fairly (small p) pagan. The focus is very clearly a celebration of life, love – weddings are very popular at this time of year – and the light. It took me a long time to grasp how hard it is for people from more southern parallels to understand the change in light over the year here. Where I live, in Dalsland, is not that far north even, but we still get very little real dark here during the time around the solstice. The sun seems to never want to set, and that magically beautiful twilight between real daylight and darkness is longer than at any other time of the year. People dance around the maypoles, make wreaths of leaves and flowers to put on their heads; they eat, drink and sing and stay up all night.

There is also much folklore surrounding Midsummer; the most common here may be the practice of climbing over nine fences to pick nine kinds of flowers and put them under one’s pillow at night to dream of one’s future husband or wife, but there are many others. The dew is said to be a potent medicine for ailments and can also be used to reinvigorate a brew that had failed to start fermenting. Drinking from wells to cure illness, looking into wells to see the future and giving offerings in wells for luck and happiness in the year are all real, though these days rather uncommon. Not least due to the over all lack of open wells easily accessible to most people.

With all the connection between Midsummer and love, weddings and fortune telling about love and such, it will come as no surprise that it’s the sexiest holiday of the year. In a 1689 attempt to ban certain Midsummer celebrations the reason stated is to get rid of the bad behaviour of the youth, which probably translates to fornication. There’s a Swedish saying that translates to something like “Midsummer night is brief but sets 77 cradles a-rocking”. Any holiday that centres so much on youth, love, sex and alcohol – properly flavoured schnapps and pickled herring is bloody AMAZING together – is bound to be impossible for the church to lay claim to in any real sense, and thus it is in a very definite sense pagan, regardless of the antiquity of the practices. The big, leaf-clad cross with two rings hanging from the arms of it is generally accepted in the mainstream to represent the male genitalia rammed into the Earth in a rather unsubtle way. While it may be historically wrong, in the sense that this wasn’t the original intent of the pole, it has helped form modern Midsummer into the hedonistic revelry that it often is.

The Maypole and hörg at our Midsummer blót
The Maypole and hörg at our Midsummer blót

Lets Make Midsummer Heathen Again

With this in mind, and remembering that in Sweden (and I think all of Scandinavia) the same word is used for pagan and heathen, it may not be so hard to see that Midsummer was already a heathen holiday when organised Heathenry got its shit together and started celebrating Midsummer blót. All we needed to do as adapt a few things here and there, and we were set. Rather than go back to what must be the older practice of lighting fires to dance around, Sweden’s Asatru Society (“Sveriges Asatrosamfund”, as Forn Sed Sweden was originally called), the Midsummer Maypole was used, though not the cruciform modern variant, but an older one with a ring hung over a single pole. Considering that Midsummer often is seen as a celebration of the sexual union between Freyr and Freyja, or Freyr and Gerðr – or indeed another divine pair, such as Fjörgyn and Fjörgynn – this imagery is very appropriate. Some groups play out a game before raising the Maypole where the men make the pole and the women the ring, and afterwards the men are to chase the women and try to get the pole into the ring. Very subtle symbolism, I know.

In our blotlag (hearth/kindred) we invite Frey, Freyja, Sol, Thor and Sif to the Midsummer blót. Frey as the lord of vegatation and love, Freyja as the lady of mystery, magic and sex, Sol for obvious reasons and Thor and Sif as the rulers of “high summer” (sw “högsommar”). While most of this may be rather self explanatory, Thor and Sif may require something more.

We invoke Thor above all as the protector of life, and Sif since we regard her as ripening the grain (changing the fields from green to gold). On the field they are invited together as the guarantee that the harvest will not fail. In a figurative sense they represent how we as adult men and women take on responsibilities for others, as parents, leaders, and fellow human beings. Though we understand in, an intellectual way, the need for good harvests to feed us, we are not farmers, but we can find a closer connection to the natural world and our place in it through associating the cycle of our lives as individuals with the cycle of the year or of the universe

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