Midsummer - Old or Ancient?
Updated: Jun 7
Midsommar (Midsummer) is a modern summer tradition in Northern European countries. It takes place during the middle of summer on or around June 21-24.
Most Swedish culture is built on folklore and tales dating back to the Viking Age. The question is, how far back has Midsommar been traced? Was it genuinely held during the longest day of the year? Was it evolved to conform to a modern era as Yule was? Brief History Recap: Scandinavian Calendars If you follow my older articles, you know Vikings did not have a traditional calendar. They followed the moon's phases to tell what time of year was approaching and documented special occasions on stavs made of wood, stone, bone or horn. Because of this, we know that Yule initially took place nearly a month after the winter solstice. This changed when Norway converted to the Gregorian calendar. Scandinavia's rural areas continued to use stavs until the 1800s (19th century).
The oldest known stav was found in Nyköping, Sweden and has been dated back to the 13th century; however, a primstav was mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon chronicle for the year 876, which is believed to have come when the Danish Vikings began their settlement in England (source).
The most popular runic calendar is Worm’s Norwegian runic calendar from 1643, carved from bone. He described the winter months in his book 'Fasti Danici' but neglected to document the summer side. Thankfully the runstavs and primstavs help fill in this information for us.
Is Midsummer Pagan or Christian in Origin?
Using facts from this research journal, we can determine that Midsommar customs are pagan in nature, but the name and date are Christian.
Pagan mid-summer celebrations can be traced back to the Iron Age (58-79 BC) with carvings of sun-worship, expressing joy and thanks to the sun for its life-giving power. Influence is thought to come to Southern Germany, either when Caesar was moving north during pre-Christian Rome or from the Germanic legions when they returned home from their service. But does sun-worship equate to Midsummer? Outside of sun-worship, pagans began holding the middle of summer festivities sometime before 930AD - but they did not have a fixed date. Celebrations were likely held in June when Vikings/sailors returned from their voyages. Upon their long-awaited return, it is likely a community gathering and sumbel was held. This theory explains that pagan men and women may have gathered to sing praises of heroes and famous women while everyone danced, flirted and drank during mid-summer months.
It was not until the late 10th century that King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway gave pagans a fixed day for their customs to coincide with St. John's Eve. At this time, pagans and Christians united to celebrate the introduction of the Midsommar Festival. Here everyone was encouraged to take part in festive drinking.
The mountainous areas of
Germany, continued Heathen traditions into the 1930s. Revivalist groups have since continued it by lighting fire-shaped displays. If you are interested, the most impressive annual display is on Germany's highest mountain in Bavaria called Zugspitze. It is called Feuerzauber auf den Bergen (Fire Magic on the Mountains). (source)
Pagan Mid-Summer Celebrations:
Allthing (Iceland) - Two weeks in mid-June. Established from 930-999 - The date was moved to the 10th week of the summer weeks on Thursdays after this period.
Sunnenwende Events - 16th Century Southern Germany
Summer Bride Festival (Norway) - Moved to Jonsok by the 1700s.
The earliest attestation of a Mid-summer sacrificial celebration comes from 10th century Norway when a Midsommarsblot may have been more of a threat than an actual occasion. In this text, King Olav Trygvason led an army to convert the pagans of Trondheim to Christianity. His army was no match for his opponents. Instead, he spoke with his rivals and promised a Midsommarsblot where one of their noblemen would be sacrificed daily until they converted. It is the only mention of a mid-summer sacrifice.
The Midsommar festival created by the King of Sweden-and-Norway is (likely) not connected to this battle story.
Tracing Back Midsummer Celebrations
If you are like me, you are probably looking for connections throughout timelines to understand where Midsummer celebrations come from and if they are all connected. Below are dates I have compiled in chronological order from sagas, laws and archaeological discoveries.
It is essential to note the following occurrences were not called Midsommar or Midsummer, but celebrations held during the middle of summer weeks. The following timeline is a series of events from the earliest to the latest events:
1930s: Heathen traditions continued until 1930 on the Mountains of Dauphine, which presided over June 24 before the 312 Century.
1700s: Solstice games of southern Germany led historian Jacob Grimm to conclude fires lit to welcome summer "derive straight from our native heathenism." He also observed these fires occur during the time of Easter and midsummer.
1600s: Biographer St. Eigils tried to prohibit Heathen Midsommar customs during Midsommar. The Morris dance is created, replacing wilder heathen dances. Christmas customs become more sedate.
1000s: King of Norway connects the Heathen Summer Bride Festival to Jonsok (Day of St. John) by establishing a Midsommar festival and disbands sacrifices/blóts.
994 - The king of Norway knew about Midsommar traditions and tried to convert Heathens with a promise or threat of a Midsommarsblót.
930-999: The Icelandic Allthing Assembly is held for two weeks on the 9th week of summer weeks. Note: The influence of kings don't arrive in Iceland until 1262.
58-49 BC: Carvings from Denmark and Sweden show expressions of joy, thanks and worship to the sun for its life-giving power. Sun wheel carvings throughout Scandinavia and Germany are included. These are used in folk customs. *Note: This only proves sun-worship existed. It is not evidence of Midsommar.
Is Midsummer Pagan? At the end of the day the big question is: Is Midsummer pagan?
I like to give simple answers at the beginning of my articles, but Midsommar has so many layers to be understood! This time it was essential to go through the history and details of Midsommar and its variants.
The simplest and most accurate answer is Midsummer is and is not pagan in origin. It is a mixture of cultural, Christian and pagan traditions that has evolved throughout thousands of years. That said, pagan sun-worship existed long before Christian influence reached the lands, and other pagan summer solstice traditions has been present in the Scandinavian and Germanic areas long enough for scholars to conclude some of these traditions come from a pagan past.
Nordberg, Andreas. “Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning" Kalendrar Och Kalendariska Riter i Det Förkristna …, 2006."
Billington, Sandra. "The Midsummer Solstice As It Was, Or Was Not, Observed in Pagan Germany, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England." Folklore 119, no. 1 (2008): 41-57. Accessed February 23, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30035459.
McKenna, Francine A. "SUMMER SOLSTICE AND MIDSUMMER MAGIC IN GERMANY
Francine A. McKenna" https://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art172089.asp Plot, Robert. "The Natural History of Stafford-shire" https://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Natural_History_of_Stafford_shire.html?id=T03JVJkdC9gC&redir_esc=y
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