Shakespeare drew on ancient folk tradition when he made a magical plant that inspired the center of his play, A Midsummer's Night's Dream--for midsummer has always been the most important time of year to gather magical herbs. Like the sun, which is at its peak on the Summer Solstice, the plants are at the height of their power. In Latvia, Midsummer Eve (June 23rd) is also known as Herb Evening.

Folk customs disagree on the most magical moment to gather these herbs: some say at noon, others at midnight and still others in the morning when the dew is still on them. The particular flowers and herbs to be gathered also differ by country, with carnations and lavender popular in Italy and violet and vervain in Germany. According to Elizabeth Luard in her book on Sacred Food, in Provence, five aromatic herbs-rosemary, thyme, marjoram, hyssop and sage--are gathered on the eve of Saint Jean (June 23) to make an "infusion aux herbes de Saint Jean."

St. John's Wort, with its solar yellow flowers, is the most frequently mentioned herb of Midsummer. According to old herbals, it is an herb of the Sun and of Leo. The botanical name is hypericum perforatum. Hypericon comes from hyper icon (because it was placed above icons); the perforatum refers to the tiny holes visible in the leaves and flowers if you look closely. St. John's Wort is named after St. John because it blooms on his day. Wort simply means an herb, usually a healing herb, thus it is attached to other herbs like motherwort and mugwort.

The plant is also connected with St. John because it appears to bleed. Pinch the flower heads or leaves and they will leave a dark red stain on your fingers. If the St. John's wort you are pinching does not do this, that's because you're pinching the ornamental St. John's Wort, hypericum calycinum (aka Rose of Sharon and Aaron's Beard). The ground cover is a low lying plant with rather thick green leaves and showy yellow 5-petaled flowers with a frilly center. The magical St. John's Wort grows about one foot tall and is rather spindly with small, 5-petaled flowers.

Herbalists often prescribe a tincture of St. John's Wort as an effective herbal anti-depressant-perhaps because it accumulates the sunny nature of Midsummer in its very being. As a magical herb, it's associated with protection. A poem from the year 1400 recommends rubbing "the red juicy flower" on the lintels of your home to protect from thunder and tempest. I use it this way in my house and car. I have a few sprigs pinned up over each entrance and a few above my rear view mirror and they've worked well.

Midsummer Wreaths

The symbol of the circle is as prominent at the summer solstice as at winter Solstice. As a result, wreaths were integral to summer celebrations. They were worn while dancing around the midsummer bonfire, given as gifts, hung around the necks of cattle for protection, thrown into the fire at the end of the evening or taken home (slightly singed from the fire) to hang from the rafters.

Wreaths were also used as divining devices. Boys and girls gazed at each other across the fire through the wreaths, to see if they would be true and if they would marry within the year. (No indications are given on how they knew this.) Girls threw the wreaths across the fire to the boys to catch.

In Germany, people wore chaplets of mugwort and vervain and looked at the fire through bunches of larkspur, to keep their eyes healthy for the year. When they left, they threw their chaplets into the fire saying "May all my ill-luck depart and be burnt up with these."

I always gather up all the dried herbs, old wreaths and even the remains of my Christmas tree (stored in my closet since winter solstice) to toss into my midsummer bonfire. They burn and die just as the heat of the summer sun consumes the spring and brings us closer to the decline of autumn and the death of vegetation in winter.

Love and Flowers

According to Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, Latvian boys and girls went out into the fields at midsummer to gather cornflowers, water lilies and fragrant grasses to make into wreaths. It seems like the perfect opportunity for courtship, another favorite midsummer activity. There is an old Swedish proverb that says: "Midsummer night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking." This is, of course, because of the way the Swedes celebrate the holiday, with camping trips on the mountains and in the woods, during which much drinking and frolicking occurs.

In Estonia, lovers go into the forest on midsummer's eve to look for the flower of a fern which is supposed to bloom only on that night. Since ferns never bloom (as far as I know) this provides a good excuse for escaping into a shady and private grove.

In Portugal, at midsummer, lovers exchange little pots of magerico, a pungent plant, decorated with paper pinks to which love verses have been attached.

Plants were also used for love divinations on midsummer. In 17th century England, maids picked two sprigs of orpine (also known as midsummer-men) and hung them up in pairs from the ceiling, divining the future of their relationship by whether or not the plants inclined toward each other or apart. In Finland, girls go to the fields to gather seven different kinds of wild flowers and grasses. If you sleep with these tucked under your pillow, you will dream of your future mate.

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