Caught by the River

Midsummer Customs

2nd July 2023

In an extract from a new book of his collected essays for Folklore Tapes, Jez Winship delves into the Midsummer rites observed by witches and Moomins alike.

Midsummer Eve was thought to be a time when witches were active, going abroad to gather flowers and herbs whose potency was at its height on this night. As John Aubrey noted, ‘Midsummer Eve is counted or called the Witches’ Night’.  Cornish Penwith witches were said to gather on Burns Down above Zennor on midsummer’s eve, the nomenclature denoting the many fires which were lit amongst the natural cauldrons of the granite landscape basins and on the tables of dolmen stones. The Witches’ Rock which was the ultimate site for their midnight assembly is no longer there, having been broken up and possibly used for stone wall construction in the nineteenth century. It used to be said that touching the rock nine times at midnight would afford protection against ill-fortune – a species of associative counter-magic. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the farm which lies beneath Burns Down is called Tregerthen, or Rowan Tree Farm. Rowan wood afforded powerful protection against the depredations of witchcraft, and twigs tied together with red ribbons and hung above stable and farmhouse doors would keep harmful magic at bay. 

Effigies of witches were burned in some fires, a tradition revived by the Cornish at St Cleer. A witch’s broom and hat are perched on the peak of the bonfire mountain. When it is lit, a variety of herbs and flowers are thrown onto the pyre to nullify their efficacy in any witchery attempted in the vicinity. The very flowers used for the purposes of witchcraft (or, as was more likely the case, herbal medicine) could be employed as magical protection. Garlands of vervain, yarrow, mugwort, plaintain, dwarf elder, corn marigold (the ‘summer’s bride’), orpins and, most powerfully of all, St John’s wort (or chase-devil) could be hung on doors to repel malevolent spells, or burned in midsummer fires to create a purifying incense. Yarrow hung up on St John’s Eve would ward off sickness for the coming year. Those seeking St John’s Wort on the evening when its magic was at its most potent might have a bit of a hunt on their hands, however. It was said to be able to move to evade those intent on picking it. 

Of course, Midsummer flowers were beautiful decorations, magical powers notwithstanding. John Stow noted ‘on the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the Apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St. John’s wort, orpine, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers’, their colours brought out in the evening by the illumination of hundreds of lamps to ‘make a goodly show’. Another tradition involved the creation of midsummer cushions; either an actual cushion upon which flowers were arrayed, or a stool covered in a layer of thick, clayish soil into which flowers were embedded. The poet John Clare loved such presentations and wanted to title one of his later collections The Midsummer Cushion. 

Midsummer was a time considered particularly propitious for divination, especially when foretelling romantic fortunes. Flowers play their part here too. The prominent floral aspect of midsummer rites and celebrations is hardly surprising given that this is the time of fullest flowering. Two orpine flowers were hung together, sometimes resting against a plate, on midsummer’s eve. If, on the following morning, they had inclined towards one another, love would blossom and fidelity was assured. If they turned away from each other, love would fade and loyalties stray. In the disastrous event of the orpines withering, a death in the household was foretold. Fortunately, this was highly unlikely. Orpine flowers were renowned for remaining fresh long after having been cut, hence one of their common names, life-long. Another such name was ‘midsummer men’, indicating how closely and widely they were associated with these divinations. 

The magical potency of flowers reached its peak on St John’s eve, and in some cases this was the only time at which their power became manifest. A piece of mugwort ‘coal’ dug up beneath its roots (in actuality a rotted part of those roots) on St John’s Eve would afford protection from plague, ague, lightning, carbuncle and burning, and was thus a highly sought after natural treasure on this one enchanted night. Fernseed (the tiny spores on the underside of fern leaves) was particularly elusive, supposedly appearing on this one evening of the year and no other. If you were somehow able to gather it (and you would likely face opposition from witches jealously guarding their special patch) it would confer upon you the power of invisibility. Sacred springs or wells could also be used for divination, with the bubbles or ripples produced by offerings of coins, bent pins or flowers thrown upon the waters providing answers to questions of love and matrimony. These offerings, or coloured ribbons tied to adjacent trees, would activate the healing powers of the waters. 

A sunwise circumnavigation of the well was often part of the ritual, as at the Pin Well in Alnwick Park in Northumberland. Processing or dancing in a circling, sunwise direction was a feature of many midsummer celebrations, modelling the ecliptic solar passage across the sky and thereby invoking its power and blessing. Never anti-sunwise (or widdershins), however; that would summon dark otherworldly forces into your life and invite ill fortune. The North Eastern antiquarian Moses Aaron Richardson, writing in the 6th volume of his mid-19th century collection titled, with exhaustively thorough accuracy, ‘The Local Historian’s Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences, Historical Facts, Legendary and Descriptive Ballads, &c., connected with the Counties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, and Durham’, remarks upon the three holy wells near Longwitton-hall in Northumberland. ‘Great concourses of people from all parts, also used to assemble here in the memory of old people on “Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following” and amuse themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the wells’. He also notes the myth of the guardian dragon associated with the wells, a creature capable of making itself invisible and renewing itself by dipping its tail in the healing waters. It was defeated by one Sir Guy of Warwick, who noticed its secret and cunningly interposed himself between the beast and its source of power, hacking it about until it could take no more, curled up and died. The wells were thenceforth free for all to use. Three cheers for Sir Guy!

To retain the magical properties of plants and flowers gathered St John’s Eve, or the divinatory secrets of sacred waters, it was a general requirement that complete and solemn silence was maintained. The Moomins understood this, as Tove Jansson related in Moominsummer Madness. After sitting by their midsummer fire for a spell, Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and the Fillyjonk venture out into the night meadows to gather nine kinds of flower (as we have seen with the Witches’ Rock, nine is something of a magic number). The Snork Maiden recalls previous midsummer evenings when ‘we went off to pick nine kinds of flowers and put them under our pillow and then our dreams came true. But you weren’t allowed to say a word while you picked them, not afterwards until morning’. This most magically-wise of creatures also knew some midsummer romantic divinatory rites: ‘First you must turn seven times around yourself, mumbling a little and stamping your feet. Then you go backwards to a well, and turn around, and look down in it. And then, down in the water, you’ll see the person you’re going to marry’. 


‘Leaves From the Albion Library: A Gathering of Folklore Tapes Essays 2013-2023’ is out now and available here (£12.00; limited to an edition of 150).