Midsummer - Old or Ancient?
Updated: Jun 17
Midsommar (Midsummer) is a modern summer tradition in Northern European countries that takes place during the middle of summer on or around June 21-24.
Most of the 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 is truly held during the longest day of the year? Was it evolved to conform to a modern era as Yule was?
Midsommar is a tradition I hold close to my heart. I have childhood memories of spending a day in grassy fields wearing flower crowns, dancing around a Midsommar pole, and singing ridiculous Swedish songs, but there is a lot more to it than modern cultural tradition. Brief History Recap: Scandinavian Calendars If you have been following my older articles, you will know that Vikings did not have a traditional calendar. They followed the phases of the moon to tell what time of year was approaching, and documented special occasions on stavs made of wood, stone, bone or horn. Yule originally took place nearly a month after the winter solstice until Norway converted its population to follow the Gregorian calendar. Rural areas of Scandinavia 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 which was carved into bone. He described the winter months in his book 'Fasti Danici', but he neglected to document the summer side. Thankfully the runstavs and primstavs help fill in this information for us.
Is Midsommar Pagan or Christian in origin?
Using facts from this research journal we can determine Midsommar customs are pagan in nature, but the name and date is 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 to home from their service. But does sun-worship equate to Midsummer? Outside of sun-worship, pagans began holding 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 the observations of pagan men and women gathered to sing praises of heroes and famous women, while everyone danced, flirted and drank during mid-summer months.
It wasn't until the late 10th century that the King of Norway, Olav Trygvason gave pagans a fixed day for their customs, which coincided with St. John's Eve. At this time pagans and Christians came together to celebrate the introduction of 'Midsommar Festival' where everyone was encouraged to take part in festive drinking.
That said, mountainous areas of Dauphine, Germany continued Heathen traditions into the 1930s and revivalist groups have since continued the tradition. The most impressive modern display can be found 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 - At the end of this period the date was moved to the Thursday of the 10th week of the summer-weeks
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 Midsommarsblót seemed to have been more of a threat than an actual occasion. In this text, Olav Trygvason led an army to convert pagans of Trondheim to Christianity. His army was no match for his opponents, so instead he spoke with his rivals and promised a Midsommarsblót where one of their most noble men would be sacrificed daily until they convert. 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're probably looking for connections through timelines to figure out where Midsummer celebrations came from and if they are connected. I have done my best to compile dates and locations in order of its evidence through records of sagas, laws and archaeological discoveries. It is important 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 earliest to latest events:
1930s: Heathen traditions continued until 1930 in the Mountains of Dauphine; which presided over June 24 before the 312 Century.
1700s: Solstice games of southern Germany lead 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 during midsummer.
1600s: Biographer, St. Eigils tried to prohibit Heathen Midsommar customs during Midsomar. Morris dance is created, replacing wilder, heathen dances, and 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 henceforth disbands sacrifices/blóts.
994 - 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: Influence of kings don't arrive in Iceland until 1262.
58-49 BC: Carvings from Denmark and Sweden show expression of joy, thanks, and worship to the sun for its life-giving power; and symbols of the sun-wheel survived from Scandinavia and Germany through use in folk customs. *Note: This only proves sun-worship existed. It is not evidence of Midsommar.
Conclusion: Usually I like to give simple answers at the beginning of my articles (and I tried) but this particular event has so many layers of answers that we needed to understand the details within it before understanding the history of Norse Midsommar and its variants.
So is Norse Midsommar Historically Heathen? The simple answer is yes and no. Given the evidence in this article we can say without a doubt that: Middle-of-Summer celebrations in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland were celebrated before the arrival of Christianity at varying times in history; however, it was under Christian leadership that it was given a specific date and made into a public festival to unite its people of different beliefs. I hope you can walk away from this post feeling better connected and knowledgeable about your path. If you require more insight, please continue reading my sources in the 'Further Readings/Citation' field below. Sincerely, Jennifer Hartman Pagan Kids pagankids.org
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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